Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

2020 Hugo finalists and 1945 Retro Hugo finalists for Best Graphic Story or Comic

One of the problems with this Hugo category (which has, thank heavens, been renamed to include the crucial word "Comic" - after extraordinary struggle) is that we are not always comparing like with like. For this year, we have two standalone stories, two finalists that are the concluding installments of long series, and a middle volume and a first volume. It's very good to see that the publishers of all three established series included all previous volumes in the Hugo Packet - in two of the three cases, I already had the previous volumes as well, but it certainly made a difference for me in the third case. In the end if we are going to have just one Hugo category covering comics, we're always going to have these situations (and I don't think we need another Hugo category of any kind). Anyway, here are this year's finalists and what I thought of them.

Die, Volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker, by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles

Second frame of third chapter:

First volume of what promises to be an ongoing serial. Our protagonists were sucked into a parallel dimension while playing an RPG twenty-five years ago, and were returned to the real world, scarred and damaged; now they are sucked back into the parallel universe. Good art and nicely executed symbolism; but I didn't really engage with the characters, and it's pretty bleak in tone. You can get it here.

LaGuardia, written by Nnedi Okorafor, art by Tana Ford, colours by James Devlin

Second frame of third chapter:
I rather bounced off Okorafor's Binti novellas, but very much liked her earlier novel Lagoon, and I'm glad to say that this story is in the Lagoon universe, or one closely related to it. Aliens have landed some time ago; some of the countries of the world are adapting well to integrating this new source of diversity, others are not, and our pregnant heroine is navigating the human/alien encounter inside her own body as well as in her dealings with society in New York and Nigeria. Well done and realised. Slightly inconclusive. You can get it here.

Monstress, Volume 4: The Chosen, written by Marjorie Liu, art by Sana Takeda

Second frame of third chapter (Chapter 21)
The first three volumes of Monstress won the last three Hugos in this category; will it be four out of four? Myself I find the art and world-building truly extraordinary, but am squicked by the graphic violence (OK, there's less of it this time) and am getting a bit lost in the overall storyline (perhaps I should go back and reread the first three volumes, kindly included in the Hugo voter packet). You can get the four volumes here, here, here and here.

Mooncakes, by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker, letters by Joamette Gil

Second frame of third chapter:
This was the surprise in the Hugo final ballot - the one finalist from a smaller publisher (four of the other five are from Image, and LaGuardia is from Dark Horse). It's a YA romance story of Chinese-Americans in rural New England, where our heroine, a young witch, teams up with her  beloved, a non-binary werewolf, to overcome evil and bring about a better world (at least for them). Very sweet. You can get it here.

Paper Girls, Volume 6, written by Brian K. Vaughan, drawn by Cliff Chiang, colours by Matt Wilson, letters by Jared K. Fletcher

Second frame with dialogue in from the third chapter of each of the six volumes:

Volume 1 (originally in issue #3)

Volume 2 (originally in issue #8)

Volume 3 (originally in issue #13)

Volume 4 (originally in issue #18)

Volume 5 (originally in issue #23)

Volume 6 (originally in issue #28)

I've already written about this, in October last year. I said then:
This is the story of four 12-year-olds delivering newspapers in 1988 in Cleveland, Ohio, all from different ethnic backgrounds, who get swept up into a mysterious time war which takes them to the future and past, both near and far. Unlike with some comics compilations, each of the sic volumes has its own arc, though I don't think you could describe them as completely self-contained; I definitely would have benefited from reading Volume 2 before Volume 3.

It's awfully well done. The four girls are Erin (Asian), Mac (tomboy), KJ (Jewish and gay) and Tiffany (African-American and the most nerdy). Each of them gets to confront different versions of their own future - I think the best bit is in Volume 2, where the girls meet Erin's 40-year-old future self in 2016 Cleveland.

The art is great throughout. There is a particularly strong part in Volume 6 where the four girls are scattered into different timelines and we follow each of them on her own line across the pages, like a musical score. One is never in any danger of getting confused between the main characters, and when people turn up at different ages, they remain recognisable.

I haven't seen Stranger Things (apart from one episode which I watched for the 2017 Hugos) but I understand it's along the same lines, and that if you like one, you'll probably like the other. I found this immensely satisfying. You can get the six volumes here, here, here, here, here and here.
This is one of the two cases where the last volume of the series is on the ballot, but it's impossible to make a fair judgement of its impact without having read the previous five volumes, so it's just as well that the publisher has made those available.

The Wicked + The Divine, Volume 9: “Okay”, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, colours by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles

Second frame from the third chapter in each of the nine volumes:

Volume 1 (originally in issue #3)

Volume 2 (originally in issue #8)

Volume 3 (originally in issue #14)

Volume 4 (originally in issue #20)

Volume 5 (originally in issue #25)

Volume 6 (originally in issue #31)

Volume 7 (originally in issue #36)

Volume 8 (originally in 1831 issue)

Volume 9 (originally in issue #42)

I was very interested to read this - I had seen it bubbling around the threshold for the Hugo ballot in previous years (volume 7 missed last year by only 3.38 points, and volumes 3 and 5 both came in ninth place in 2016 and 2017). Volume 9 concludes the story of twelve gods who return to earth, incarnated as young people, every few decades to live for two years and then die. In the meantime they possess divine powers and become objects of popular fascination and cultlike devotion. Reading volume 9 on its own left me frankly pretty confused; the publishers' decision to give Hugo voters access to the previous 8 volumes as well was very helpful and clarified some of what was going on. I still didn't find the characters all that engaging, I must admit. (Also for narrative purposes you can skip Vol 8 which comprises sidelines to the main story.) But you can get the nine volumes here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

I may have been a bit snarky in a couple of cases above, but I enjoyed reading all of these.

1945 Retro Hugo for Best Graphic Story or Comic

The same applies as for this year: we are not really comparing like with like here. Three of the finalists are daily or weekly newspaper strips; the other three are standalone stories. But we are where we are. Worth noting that the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon stories draw heavily on the wartime environment. Ian's guide to the 1945 Retros has useful pointers to where you can read the comics, thanks to Art Lortie.

Buck Rogers: “Hollow Planetoid”, by Dick Calkins, available here.

Second frame of third installment:
Our hero is marooned in space with the wrong girl. 150 daily strips, but well-plotted, with women characters showing some agency (though also motivated by mutual jealousy) and a real sensawunda glowing from the fairly basic illustrations.

Donald Duck: “The Mad Chemist”, by Carl Barks, available here.

Second frame of third page:
The Mad Chemist of the title is Donald Duck himself, who invents a new explosive and flies to the moon and back, to the consternation of the nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie.

Flash Gordon: “Battle for Tropica”, by Don Moore & Alex Raymond, available here.

Second frame of third installment:
Another serial story, with 30 weekly installments, which I felt slightly lacking a clear beginning or end, though some of the middle is pretty good.

Flash Gordon: “Triumph in Tropica”, by Don Moore & Alex Raymond, available here.

Second frame of third installment:
I actually found this a lot more coherent than the previous Flash Gordon strip, as our heroes, having penetrated the city of Tropica, do their best to overthrow the dictator from within.

The Spirit: “For the Love of Clara Defoe”, by Manly Wade Wellman, Lou Fine and Don Komisarow, available here.

Second frame of third page:
The Spirit protects an actress and also deters the Commissioner's daughter from a career on the stage. Nicely drawn but didn't seem to me to have any sfnal element (the acid, perhaps?) which means I bump it down my list a bit.

Superman: “The Mysterious Mr. Mxyztplk”, by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, available here.

Second frame of third page:
First appearance of what would become a regular recurring character in the Superman universe, now spelt Mxyzptlk, an intruder from another dimension with awesome supernatural powers. Interesting to challenge Superman with a superior force, which he eventually defeats with a ruse straight out of the 1001 Nights.

I feel the Retro Hugo in this category is coming into its own - we are seeing a consistent set of interesting finalists, which are admittedly of their time, but do point towards the future of the genre. It's a shame that only one comic originally published in a language other than English has ever made the final ballot though. (Hergé's The Secret of the Unicorn, last year.)
Tags: bookblog 2020, comics, hugos 2020, writer: brian vaughan, writer: kieron gillen, writer: nnedi okorafor

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